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Switched On: Battling the boombox bust


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

While portable digital audio player sales have soared over the past three years, sales of other audio components have seen double-digit declines in the same period. The CD has not only reached saturation, but has proven a beast to manage in a music library. Home audio components such as receivers and floor-standing speakers have taken refuge in the audiophile-friendly confines of specialty retailers, while the low end of the market has to some extent done the same in the bargain basements of mass merchants.

That low end has has the following hierarchy – shelf systems at the top, boomboxes in the middle and clock radio at the bottom. Last year's Brookstone SongCube (pictured at right) was one of the few shelf systems to include a hard drive. However, the boombox has been even slower to come into the digital age as a standalone music device even though several models – even inexpensive ones – have MP3-CD capabilities. Clock radios lack even these, although there is an MP3 alarm clock offered in Europe that can use SD cards In addition, of the three, boomboxes are most apt to be used outdoors, and have not been hit as hard by the iPod as portable CD players have been..

That said, for many, boomboxes and shelf systems have been displaced by iPod speaker docks. Indeed, I attended two parties in the last year where the tunes were served up by a humble Altec Lansing inMotion iMPlus. And while the company's iM7 system -- one of the few iPod enclosures that practically ensures that the portable player won't fall victim to an accidental hip check by a raucous reveler -- would have been up to the task, these portable systems – designed for desktop use – were not..

The appeal is easy to understand, though. iPod speaker enclosures can take advantage of the entrenched player's considerable storage and easy playlist creation via iTunes, However, on the other hand, they're generally expensive and -- since they depend on the iPod -- a bit clumsy, overkill for a few hours at the beach or park. Sharp's pricey 1Box -- introduced last year -- is one of the few true digital boombox on the market, but that is only in the market of Japan.

Still, it demonstrates the kind of sleek designs a company can create if it doesn't have to accommodate a CD -- or iPod for that matter. Sharp has taken the right approach in making its digital boombox flash-based. Lower-end models could have integrated flash memory and a minimal user interface – essentially an iPod shuffle with speakers and C cells. Higher end versions could have a flash memory slot or folder-based navigation like on some of the better MP3-CD units. PlaysforSure would make more sense for a device like this because, if you're making a themed party mix, you might want to include different kinds of music than you'd normally listen to. And finally, manufacturers of such devices could save money by avoiding any dock connector licensing fees.

Portable music players serve their purpose well, but the large number of speaker docks that have sprung up under the iPod should be a sign of unmet demand for something simpler and less expensive. It may be time to start thinking inside of the box. Next week, I'll look at a product that does from an unlikely source.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at

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